Tully

May 6, 2018 at 5:54 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Whatever you think this movie is going to be, you’re wrong. One of its pleasures is how it constantly shifted the script on me. Several times, I thought I had figured it out and then it shifted again. Is it comedy? Drama? Dark? Earnest? Creepy? Playful? Poignant? Part of the allure was in keeping all those options open while letting the film take its journey. As I have said many times in this blog, too often I can guess where a film is going and that can be very boring. I guessed exactly where this film was going… and I was wrong. So, I readjusted… and I was wrong again. I enjoyed quite a bit. All of which should suggest to you that I cannot say much about the plot without ruining something. So, let me tell you as much as you can gather from the trailer below. Marlo (Charlize Theron) has 3 kids and a husband who works all the time. She is run ragged and exhausted and near her breaking point, but then things change. Theron is a fantastic actor who has lost herself in roles before. This transformation is almost as thorough as when she played Aileen in “Monster.” She feels completely believable, and completely relatable, as the overwhelmed parents. When she screams in frustration, you want to scream with her. Diablo Cody, who exploded onto the screen 10 years ago as the writer of “Juno,” has made a name for herself writing strong, real women. And everything about Marlo feels real. Her two oldest kids are played beautifully by Lia Frankland and Asher Miles Fallica. Again, everything they both did seemed completely believable. Mackenzie Davis (“Halt and Catch Fire”) was another standout. This was a mostly sweet and mostly insightful story, inhabited with strong female characters. I don’t know if I will remember the film in a year or two, but I truly enjoyed watching it.

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The Rider

April 29, 2018 at 5:36 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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I had two moments that hit like lightening during this film. First, I watch the lead character, Brady Blackburn, taming a horse. As I watched, I noticed the horse’s eyes and suddenly realized, “this horse isn’t ‘acting.’ This horse is genuinely wild and getting tamed right in front of me.” The second moment came when Brady visited his friend Lane Scott in rehab. Lane, a former Bronco rider, has been severely disabled in an accident. Watching him, and seeing video of his pre-accident, I realized he was also not acting. This person on screen had really ridden horses and is now really disabled. As it turns out, he is also really named Lane Scott. Scott had been an up-and-coming star in the bronco circuit before being severely disabled in 2013. In fact, Brady Blackburn turns out to be Brady Jandreau in real life. He was also a rising bronco star before a horse bucked him and stepped on his head. This film is the somewhat fictionalized version of his life story, and it seems that everyone is pretty much playing themselves. The father and sister in the film are his real life family. Everyone’s character has her/his own first name. Some family names have been changed, but all of Brady’s rodeo friends are playing themselves. This explains why the dialogue can sometimes feel clunky; these are not professional actors. But, that is more than made up for by the clear love and connection these people feel for each other. Jandreau is not an actor but, for this role, he did not need to be. There are many moments where the character Brady clearly blurs with the Brady playing him. In those moments, his emotions are so present and real and touching. Just like we watched Jandreau really tame a horse on screen, we are given the privilege of watching him tame his own ghosts as well. This is as close to a documentary as fiction can get. Visually and emotionally stunning, this is one of the best films I am likely to see this year.

Oh Lucy!

April 9, 2018 at 4:13 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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½

“Oh Lucy!” feels like a movie that had something worthwhile to say, if I just could have paid better attention. Setsuko feels unfulfilled in her dead-end office job in Tokyo. Her niece, Mika, asks her to attend an English class that Mika can no longer go to. Setsuko is confused and then charmed by the unconventional teacher, John. But then he and Mika disappear to America, so Setsuko and her sister head off in pursuit. The film is sometimes funny, sometimes touching, sometimes insightful, and sometimes just odd. As the very strange love-triangle between Setsuko, John, and Mika plays out, there are some moments that feel really honest and moving. But they get quickly swallowed by many more moments that just feel weird and creepy. Some of the characters’ actions are so inexplicable (particularly Setsuko’s) that it can be genuinely hard to be sympathetic. In the end, the film required more work than I was willing to put in. I found my attention wandering and, by the time the credits rolled, I felt like there had probably been something worth seeing there; I just hadn’t seen it.

A Quiet Place

April 9, 2018 at 3:57 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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If you had asked me 10 years ago what my least favorite genre of film was, I would have told you musicals (it still is, in fact). But, if you had asked my second least favorite genre, I would have said horror. I grew up believing that I hated horror movies, all the while consuming any Hitchcock I could get my hands on (“Wait Until Dark” was my favorite film in my mid-teens). I didn’t equate those films with the slashers I had come to associate with horror. I have only very rarely enjoyed a slasher film (“Scream” being the clearest example), but I love a film that is creepy, tense, and anxiety producing. And over the last few years, as the industry has become more open to films outside the slasher sub-genre, I have discovered some amazing ones (e.g.  “The Babadook,” “It Follows,” “Get Out“). Consider this one as a noble addition to that list. Taking place in the very near future, the story follows a family trying to survive against some undefined evil that has spread throughout the world. The creatures are attracted to sound, so they have to be very very quiet. Here is a piece of advice: don’t see this film in a loud theater. A lot of the film happens in silence and you will hear every crinkle of cellophane, every slurp from a cup, every whispered comment. Setting that aside, the film drew me in from the first scene. That scene is beautifully crafted and plays with audience expectations brilliantly. By the time it ends, you know what’s at stake. It’s a fantastic way to build audience investment. The film also builds tension well. It has only a few jump-in-your-seat scenes, but it does has a continual sense of dread and anxiety that was rarely abated. What made the film most effective is that it was ultimately a family story. In that sense, it reminded me so much of the brilliant, “The Road.” The story is really about how you keep those you love alive in a world of perpetual violence. As such, this film could be a metaphor for so many things happening in so many parts of the world right now. John Krasinski, who is best known for his role in the American version of “The Office,” starred as the father, directed, executive produced, and co-wrote the film. His real-life wife, Emily Blunt, plays his wife in the film. This was clearly an important film to him and his passion shows in his performance. If you ever needed to be convinced that Krasinski can be more than a goofy comedic actor, see this film. Likewise, Blunt is terrific as a mother desperate to protect her kids. The daughter is played by Millicent Simmonds, who is hearing-impaired in real life. Her character’s inability to hear is played off of the creatures’ super-hearing is some very effective ways. Lastly, Noah Jupe plays the young son. His performance reminded me of Kodi Smit-McPhee’s in “The Road.” Both did a terrific job of looking anxious and scared all the time. In a film with essentially just a small cast, everyone needs to be on point and they were. This was a strong film: it had great characters, a solid plot device, a good story arc, and some genuinely creepy scenes. If you want a film that will keep you on edge and not bathe you in blood, this is the one for you.

The Party

March 7, 2018 at 7:33 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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This black-and-white British film was small in scope and fairly modest in its intentions. It was not trying to say anything big, nor was it trying to make a cultural impact, nor did it even seem to want to move the audience. In fact, I had a hard time trying to figure out why writer/director Sally Potter made it at all. The only other film of hers I have seen is the brilliant, audacious “Orlando” (1992) that helped make Tilda Swinton a star. She has only made a handle full of other movies in the intervening 25 years. And this one could not be more different from that one. Where “Orlando” spanned centuries and vast distances, “The Party” takes place in one home over one night. It very much reminded me of early 20th Century plays, in which a common trope was to trap people in a house someplace and see was bitterness ruptures forth over the course of a day, a night or a weekend (think O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” Williams’s “The Night of the Iguana,” or Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”). This party is to celebrate Janet’s (Kristin Scott Thomas) promotion to Minister of Health. But, as it turns out, nobody is in the celebrating mood, for various reasons. The party devolves as egos fracture and darkness seeps into the room. By the end, there is a permanent emotional wreckage and an impending rash decision that will likely destroy everything. This is not fun stuff, but it can be powerful and cathartic. Unfortunately, it wasn’t. Potter never fully commits to the drama. Instead, she attempts to lighten the mood with black humor. Some of it is funny (most of the best lines belong to Patricia Clarkson), but it never becomes funny enough to make this film an effective comedy. All the humor succeeds in doing is blunting the pathos. And, at a slender 71 minutes, it barely gets started before it’s over. Each of the characters had complex stories and complicated relationships, all of which could only be touched on in the short time we had. What a shame. There was some fantastic material here. And a fantastic cast that included, Thomas, Clarkson, Timothy Spall, Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Cherry Jones, and Bruno Ganz. I didn’t leave the theater feeling like I had wasted my time (it was too short for that). Instead, I left feeling like there was wasted potential. There was a much better movie lying undiscovered just below the surface of this strange little film.

The Cloverfield Paradox

February 10, 2018 at 12:33 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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My first 2018 film happens to be another Netflix release. I might have been tempted to skip this one, except that it’s part of a series. Ten years after “Cloverfield,” we are getting the third in JJ Abrams’s series. While not as good as the excellent “10 Cloverfield Lane,” this one is on par with the first film. It’s a fast moving, often tense addition to the sci-fi/horror sub-genre. Unfortunately, all trapped-in-a-spaceship movies will forever be compared to “Alien.” If we removed that one from the evaluation, this film fairs about as well as most. Somewhere in the near future, a group of scientists aboard the space station “Cloverfield” try to solve Earth’s energy problems. Oil reserves have virtually run out, nations are fighting over limited resources, economies are collapsing. Through some entirely ill-defined means, the crew of the “Cloverfield” are on the brink of providing limitless power to Earth. Then, of course, things go terribly wrong. The team includes Gugu Mbatha-Raw (“Belle,” “Concussion”), David Oyelowo (“Selma,” “Queen of Katwe”), Daniel Brühl (“Rush,” “The Alienist”), Chris O’Dowd (“The IT Crowd,” “Calvary”), and Ziyi Zhang (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” “Memoirs of a Geisha”). This fantastic cast feels a little underutilized. They have all demonstrated an ability to show a complex range of emotions. Here, they are mostly required to be mad or scared, which they all do gamely enough. As the story develops and the tensions build, the details make less and less sense. They make for some interesting visuals and a few decent jumps, but they don’t add up to a consistent whole. One of the reasons “Alien” is so brilliant, is that you have one conceit (an alien on your spaceship) and everything stems beautifully from that one device. Here, it feels like more weirdness keeps getting piled on, whether it fits the “scientific” explanation or not. As a result, it gives the audience a sense that any strange this is possible. That allows for a lot of options, but also robs the film of some of its tension; the danger seems random, rather than sinister. How this film ties in to the first two movies is anyone’s guess. Perhaps this one is providing an explanation for what happened in the first two. Yet, there is not enough connection between the films to really embrace that idea. With the exception of the final seconds of this film (very reminiscent of the previous two), this feels as though it could have  been written and filmed as another movie, and then the studios decided to call it a “Cloverfield” film after the fact. That incredibly loose association of films is an interesting idea. But, ultimately, in order to be a series, it seems to me that a group of films needs to add value to each other, as though seeing them all gives you new insight into each separate film. Perhaps, with the addition of other films, the series will make sense and that sense of connectedness will occur. So far, it has not.

Hostiles

February 4, 2018 at 6:23 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Within the first few minutes, I had a clear sense of what this movie was going to be. It starts with Comanches massacring a homesteading family. The screen fades to black and we get the single word “Hostiles,” which fades until only the “I” remains. Just in case it isn’t clear yet that this is a film about how everyone is a hostile (including you and I), the first scene after the title is of white soldiers terrorizing an Apache family. From there, the film moves at a languid pace, interspersed with sudden moments of violence, as it tells the story of a group of soldiers commanded to take a Native American family home, so that the chief can die. They are led by Captain Blocker (Christian Bale), who has killed countless Native Americans and (of course) hates them all with a passion. The film hasn’t really started yet, but we can all see where this is going. Over the long course of 135 minutes, there will be some measure of suffering and redemption for virtually everyone. This is a strong cast, including Wes Studi, Rosamund Pike, Adam Beach, Rory Cochrane, Jesse Plemmons, Jonathan Majors, and Timotheé Chalamet. They all do a good job of being grim, broken, and determined. Few other emotions are required. That said, I was particularly impressed by Rory Cochrane (“Dazed and Confused,” “Empire Records”). I have mostly considered him a comic actor, but his haunted Sgt Metz was particularly effective. The film unfolds over the stunning Montana landscape and director Scott Cooper (“Crazy Heart,” “Black Mass”) pulls out every stunning “Dances With Wolves” shot he can think of. And, in the end, that’s its biggest problem; there was really nothing new here. Every image shown, every idea explored, has all been done in other films. There is nothing wrong with this story. It just isn’t an original one. On top of that, the final scene was just a little too pat and easy. I’m not sure that much redemption had been earned. This wasn’t a bad film. It just felt like something I would have been impressed by a couple of decades ago.

All the Money in the World

February 4, 2018 at 10:05 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I have to be honest that the only thing that drew me to this movie was curiosity. I have known all the salient information about the Getty kidnapping for many years and was never all that interested. But, I wanted to see how seamless this movie was after having to reshoot the Kevin Spacey scenes a few weeks before the release date. I must say that I was surprised. I had assumed the the JP Getty role must have been an extended cameo with two or three scenes. However, he was one of the film’s three pillars. It is incredibly impressive what Ridley Scott and his actors were able to pull off in so short a time. And, in particular, that Christopher Plummer was able to breathe life into this role with so little prep time, was particularly impressive. In fact, that “gimmick” is impressive enough that it threatens to overshadow the film as a whole. I think it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that this is actually a pretty good film overall. Covering the 4 months of Paul Getty’s abduction, the film shifts back and forth between it’s three central characters: JP Getty, Paul (his grandson), and his daughter-in-law, Gail. Michelle Williams is the best thing in this film. Her Gail had an unrelenting determination, born of desperation, that drove the entire story. Mark Wahlberg’s Fletcher Chase could have easily been the center of the film, tying the disparate parts together. However, Wahlberg simply isn’t up to the task. Of the lead performances, his was the most wooden; he could have been playing any other character he has ever played. Instead, the energy focuses on Williams who is able to convey a full range of Gail’s emotions with ease: sadness, fear, delight, exasperation, a wry humor… the list goes on. Williams is one of the better actors in Hollywood and it shows every time she’s on screen. Young Charlie Plummer (no relation to Christopher) played the ransomed grandson. I have never seen him before and he has mostly had bit parts until now, but, as Paul, he was vulnerable and very relatable. As for the other Plummer, his JP Getty was steely, calculating and cold. He seemed perfect for the role, but I found it hard not to speculate what Spacey’s performance would have been like in each scene. His “evil” characters tend to be so much more snide and condescending. I hope I can one day see those takes. The story moves along at a steady clip, creating far more drama than I would have thought, given that the outcome was never in doubt. Scott shot the film in lots of yellow light and the screen was a wash of browns, golds, and other soft, warm colors. It had a sense of Italy (where it was shot), but it also had a real sense of the ’70s, like you were looking at one of those old faded photos from the era. I think it’s important to note that the film is a dramatization of real events. In the real world, it was Paul’s father (not his mother) who did all the negotiation with JP Getty. I have no idea why that was changed, other than to highlight the power differential more starkly. And, the entire ending is pure fiction, and not particularly good fiction. I think we would have been better served by a less melodramatic and more honest wrap-up. It’s a shame; the truth is almost always more interesting. This was a solid film. It was well acted, beautifully shot, and well-paced. But it isn’t anywhere close to one of the best of the year. I think most who see it will enjoy it, but I doubt anyone will feel the need to see it twice.

Phantom Thread

January 31, 2018 at 9:59 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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“Phantom Thread” seems like the type of movie where there is so much more going on than I’m aware of. Continually, I got the sense that things meant more than they appeared to, like the words stitched into hiding places on the dresses. Writer and Director Paul Thomas Anderson (“Boogie Nights,” “There Will Be Blood,” “Inherent Vice,” “Magnolia”) is known for complex, multilayered stories. Yet, this one seemed deceptively simple. Taking place some time in the late ’50s or early ’60s, the story is about the fictional Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis). Woodcock is the top fashion designer of his age. He is moody, rigid, aloof, and controlling. He takes on women as his muses/lovers and has his sister get rid of them once he has grown bored. But then, Alma enters his life and slowly begins to get the upper hand. This is a film that looks like a Merchant-Ivory production, but has the heart of a Gillian Anderson novel. There is a dark, twistedness to this story; if you miss it early on, the ending will only baffle you. In fact, even when you catch it, the ending could still leave the audience scratching its collective heads. There is nothing here as blunt as “There Will be Blood” or as overtly weird as “Magnolia,” but it gets under the skin, nevertheless. I’ve said before that I think Day-Lewis is the best male actor alive. He completely becomes his characters (think of the difference between his Christy Brown, Bill The Butcher, and Lincoln). If this truly is his last film, it will be a loss to those of us who love great acting. Here, Day-Lewis inhabits the prim fastidiousness of his character. He is a superficially gentle, soft-spoken man who is wound too tight. Many actors might have tried to show that dichotomy by having his explode in rages. Day-Lewis’s Woodcock never has to do that; we understand his internal world by the slightest shift in pitch, the look in his eyes, the tenseness in his shoulders. This is a subtle performance, full of meaning. I kept thinking of his character Daniel from “There Will Be Blood.” That character was also tightly wound, but Day-Lewis showed us rage beneath the calm exterior, whereas here he gives us exasperation and anxiety. To be able to express those subtle differences just with his body is what makes him a master. Even in a film that felt plodding in many places, it was still a joy to watch him at work. I have to be honest, I prefer every other Day-Lewis film and Anderson film that I have seen. Had the tone of the ending crept into the film earlier, I may have been more engaged. But, as curious as this one was, it never truly gripped me.

I, Tonya

January 22, 2018 at 5:21 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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So, Part II in my real-life comedy bios of women sports stars… Actually, that statement is where any comparison between “Battle of the Sexes” and this film ends. “I, Tonya” starts with a disclaimer; “based on irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly.” That should tell you the mood and tone of this film. Unlike “Battle,” this is a bleak sort of humor; we are laughing at and not with the characters. Director Craig Gillespie (“Lars and the Real Girl”) and writer Steven Rogers (“Hope Floats”) squeeze as many laughs as they can out of what is essentially the story of an abused girl who marries an abuser and then attempts (and fails) to claw her way out of poverty. This is not a movie that makes you laugh easily and carelessly but, that said, it will leave you with some unexpected compassion. Understanding as we do that everything we learn in this film is distorted by the people who told it (namely Tonya, her mother, and her ex-husband), the audience still can’t help but feel for the brutal unfairness of this girl’s life. She was devalued and rejected by everyone, including, perhaps most painfully, the ice skating community she ached to be accepted by. The film presents her as mostly a victim of others. This is a story that is almost certainly untrue. Gillespie and Rogers balance the fact that the movie is based mostly on her interviews by giving us glimpses of her today, allowing us to draw our own conclusions. This is very clever film making. They could have chosen to present her as all hero or all villain. Instead, they invite us into the grey areas and, as a result, we get a far more compelling story. Much has been said about Margot Robbie’s and Allison Janney’s performances, as well there should be. These two women were dynamic. Robbie deserved her nomination for the SAG award and deserves one for an Oscar as well. She brought all the fierceness she showed as Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad” to bear here. And, through some intensive training and very effective CGI, she managed to look wholly believable as a skating phenom. She was truly magnetic. But, that said, Janney was even better as her mother. She stole every scene and gave the film its best laughs. She squeezed every drop of disdain possible out of the slow blink of her eyes. It was one of my favorite performances of the year. I have to also give credit to the virtually unknown Paul Walter Hauser (the “Kingdom” tv series) as Shawn Eckhardt. He was brilliant at playing the slow witted, self-important friend around whom so much of the story revolved. I hope this performance helps launch his career. This is not an easy story to watch and it offers no easy answers by the end. What it does offer, however, is a razor sharp script, some brilliant directing, and a few of the best performances of the year.

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